COLLEGE PARK – Lisa Newcomer sometimes leaves Reggie Haseltine’s database class at the University of Maryland University College midway through to switch her laundry to the dryer.
Sam Hammond likes to munch on snacks while taking notes, and sometimes demands his lecture delivered at 3 a.m.
Others want to fit in the class between trips around the world.
Haseltine doesn’t mind. He’s teaching one of the Internet- based classes that is transforming the way students get their degrees.
The move from traditional learning to online classes has sent universities in Maryland scurrying to take advantage of the new medium – before other schools attract students away.
“To put it very bluntly, distance education and technology has created a revolution in higher education,” said Gertrude Eden, who is plotting Internet strategy for the University System of Maryland.
Most public universities in Maryland, and several private institutions, are either offering classes online or are developing them.
Eden and the Education Policy Committee of the system’s Board of Regents released a report last month urging system institutions to work together to make Maryland universities leaders in distance learning for students worldwide.
College Park-based University College has led the way by offering completely online degree programs to students in such distant locales as Hong Kong and Denmark.
Haseltine’s course, like the 71 other online classes University College offers, features a “virtual classroom” where students can read and discuss the class’s content.
With one click, students find out what books they are to read that week; with another, they see a week’s lecture, including visuals; and with a third, they answer Haseltine’s questions in a discussion group.
No other school in the state has dived into online learning as deeply as University College, but several are getting their feet wet.
At least 50 classes at the University of Baltimore make use of the Internet to make life easier for that institution’s older population, according to Provost Ronald Legon.
And Frostburg State University is developing its first completely online courses and developing a technology plan to potentially widen Internet usage, said Provost Christine Grontkowski.
Although institutions are primarily gearing their online classes toward older, working students, even schools with younger or mostly residential student bodies, are investigating the potential of the Internet in classes.
At the state university system’s College Park and Eastern Shore campuses, instructors are now integrating the Internet into their classes by putting their syllabi and homework assignments online.
A Towson University task force is researching how to use technology “to enhance the traditional classroom setting,” said Assistant Vice President for Instructional Technologies Deborah Leather.
Barry Rice, a professor at Loyola College in Baltimore, has put so much of his accounting class online that he will soon be able to dedicate scheduled class time to one-on-one tutoring.
“We’re teaching the MTV generation, and the talking head professor doesn’t work to get the material across the way it once did,” Rice said. “Talking to the students, writing on the blackboard, they can’t relate to that.”
At nearby Johns Hopkins University, engineering professor Michael Karweit has created interactive experiments online for his introductory course.
Instead of designing bridges with spaghetti noodles, for example, students now draw them on their computers, determining instantaneously how their creations would fare under the weight of 18-wheelers.
“If I could put all of these things together, it could be offered at, say, a community college that might not have all the resources of a four-year university,” Karweit said.
Schools’ Internet classes will more closely resemble traditional courses as advanced multimedia technology becomes available to the populace, experts say. Audio and video feeds will soon allow classmates to see and hear each other instead of simply communicating via typed characters.
Still, most schools require students to take their exams in real-life classrooms with a proctor.
Even supporters of distance learning warn about the dangers of moving prematurely toward the Internet.
Switching too quickly to electronics could limit access among poor and minority students, who are the least likely to be on the Internet, said Carl Cuneo, director of the Ontario-based Network for the Evaluation of Educational Technology.
Some Maryland institutions are finding funding and training concerns can hinder expansion on the Internet. Most institutions try to replace the expensive computers on their networks every three years to keep up with the technology.
Instructors and administrators warn that online education is not for everyone. Professors in the new medium cannot pressure students in person to do their work.
“They have to be pretty a well-motivated type of student,” Haseltine said. “They can’t sit back and wait; they have to keep up.”
The University of Baltimore is hesitating from creating completely online degree programs, in part since a survey of students there found most would prefer some face-to-face contact.
“We feel there are interpersonal skills that are also part of the overall educational process, social skills and communication skills that would be very difficult to totally replace through the Internet,” Legon said.